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Paleo-Developmental Biology in Mongolia

posted Oct 7, 2008, 10:20 PM by Pacific Rim   [ updated Oct 10, 2008, 9:03 AM ]
    The first course of the PacRim program was a combined Paleontology and Developmental Biology course that was co-taught by Professor Sandy Dengler and UPS Professor Alice Demarais, respectively.   Dr. Dengler (known to the group as ‘Dr. Granny’) is an expert on trilobites.  This trip provided her and her daughter, Professor DeMarais, the first opportunity to teach together.  The paleontology portion of the course was designed to give students an introduction to geology, geologic time and eras, and the biological classifications that make dinosaurs unique from mammals and other creatures. Following the study of paleontology, Dr. DeMarais then taught about the basic building blocks of life and genetics pertinent to developmental biology.  Safa, one of the PacRim students, also had the opportunity to team-teach with Professor DeMarais about the biology of cancer.  Additionally, PacRimmers were given a brief introduction to human evolution by anthropologist and long time friend of the Pacific Rim Program, Dr. Edwina Williams.  Keeping with the PacRim tradition, Mongolia not only provided a unique setting for this course, but also allowed for a wide confluence of instructors.


    Mongolia proved the perfect environment for the first course of the trip as many of the most spectacular fossils have been discovered throughout the nation.  Many of these fossils are housed in the Natural History Museum in the capital city of Ulaan Baatar.  Students visited this museum prior to their excursion into the Gobi as a preview on the great finds that have been made in Mongolia. Fossils are particularly prevalent in the Flaming Cliffs, which was one of the places the group visited on the fourth day of their trip to the Gobi.  There, the first dinosaur eggs were found and where discoveries continue to occur. Such a find we learned was monumental in the paleontological world as it proved what many paleontologists could only theorize about. One of the more memorable exhibits was the Velociraptor mongoliensis & Protoceratops andrewsi, two dinosaurs who died and were fossilized mid-battle at Togrogiyn shiree not far from the flaming cliffs.


    Another preparatory field trip prior to the students’ excursion to the Gobi, was to the Hunting Museum down the street from Lamrim Monastery. Professors Dengler and DeMarais highlighted different species of animals that students would potentially glimpse during the journey. Students were surprised by the diversity of life prevalent in Mongolia and also intrigued by the display of the ancient and modern means by which the animals were hunted.


    The physical environment witnessed in the Mongolian countryside was pertinent to much of the material learned in class.  Dr. Dengler’s sharp, observant eye helped to identify many of the rock formations and wildlife in the Gobi we studied in class and the museums that otherwise may have gone unnoticed or unexplained.  Mongolia is a real paleontologist’s dream.


    Towards the end of the course, when many of the concepts from both the Paleontology and Developmental biology portions of the course began to come together, many PacRimmers could also apply (as any good Liberal Arts student should) the concepts learned in class to their wider world.  Some students took away more practical information, like junior, Norah, who learned that, “you can tell if a bone is fossilized if you lick it and it sticks.”  While junior, Epiphany, said that she realized that, “we think we are more in control (of the natural world) than we are.”  The concept of geologic time in conjunction with knowing there have been several periods of flourishing life on our planet prior to our own, encouraged many of the students to take a more relaxed approach to the issue of global warming.  “The scope of it all, in 10 million years we are going to be coal… but we are the first species with a choice about our future,” said Fayez, a fifth year senior, on the subject.

    Over the course of their stay in Mongolia, the PacRim group has learned a great deal more about themselves, their “inner fish,” and the environment that they are traveling through.  Not to mention growing together through shared experience to form a more cohesive group.


(Article by Rachel J.)